This is a guest post by Julia Pitman who shares a summary of her research for an MSc in Criminology and Criminal Psychology on the barriers to police identifying female offenders as victims of coercive control.
Today (3 March 2023) marks 8 years since the Royal Assent of the Serious Crime Act 2015 which introduced a new criminal offence of Coercive and Controlling Behaviour (CCB). During that time, police understanding and awareness of coercive control has significantly increased, reflected in the steady rise in the number of incidents recorded – though prosecution rates remain extremely low.
This understanding recognises coercive control as a pattern of behaviour including physical, emotional and economic abuse and threats, isolation and humiliation – designed to keep women* in a permanent state of fear in which they have no freedom of choice or action. Yet one behaviour remains largely unrecognised, despite its inclusion in the statutory guidance framework which accompanies the CCB offence: making victims commit crime. Indeed, campaigners argue that many women who commit crime as a direct result of coercive control are being unfairly criminalised because their contextual abuse is not being recognised or taken into account. Drawing parallels with Section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which provides protection for victims of modern slavery who have been forced to commit crimes by their exploiters, they are calling for a new statutory defence for women coerced into offending.
A duty to identify and protect
Police already have a duty to identify and protect victims of domestic abuse. My MSc dissertation research sought to explore the extent to which this extends to scenarios where women have offended as a result of coercive control. Through depth interviews with police officers from a police force in the South of England and representatives from the College of Policing and National Police Chief’s Council it identified several barriers to police recognising female offenders as victims of coercive control.
Most significant is the failure of police training and practice to recognise victims of coercive control outside of the context of first response to reports of domestic abuse. Domestic Abuse Matters training, developed by the College of Policing and domestic abuse charity SafeLives as a ‘cultural change programme’ for all police officers and staff, was understood by officers interviewed as “first responders training” and “very much a front-line training package”, which focuses on “what to look for when you get a call to a domestic-related incident”.
Although it does present scenarios where abused women fight back (violent resistors), it does not include any examples of women who may present as offenders but are victims forced to commit crime by their abuser. This contributes to a lack of awareness among officers, with one reflecting that
“for situations where it’s not presented itself as a domestic, per se, then that (offending as a result of coercive control) might not be considered.”
The weight given to ‘first response’ over other stages of the process is important since it is in the interview room where officers have the best opportunity to identify contextual domestic abuse and where awareness is most needed. However, one officer stated that most investigators:
“would consider [a disclosure that the offender had been forced to commit crime] relatively irrelevant” and would just think “I’ll deal with what’s in front of me and move on.” Another felt “it certainly isn’t a primary objective in investigations to consider ‘is this person a victim?’ …When you’re investigating things like drugs or theft or criminal damage, considering whether that person has been the victim of a crime has not been, in my experience, a priority to explore that unless it is offered by that person.”
The police force had put considerable effort into improving its response to domestic abuse, including the training of several hundred domestic abuse champions, the introduction of a domestic abuse support team to support high-risk domestic abuse investigations, and a domestic abuse learning panel to review domestic abuse cases.
However, in another example of the focus on first response, the force confirmed that the enhanced training for Domestic Abuse Champions does not include information about female offenders as victims of coercive control, and it could not recall that the learning panel had ever looked at any cases of women coerced to commit crime and whether opportunities to identify them as victims had been missed.
Recognising offenders as victims
My research also uncovered the difficulties officers faced in recognising offenders as victims. Feminist criminology tells us that women who offend are judged more harshly for being ‘doubly deviant’, whilst victimological theory holds that to achieve victim status women must be considered blameless.
This was reflected in comments from officers who admitted that they struggled to recognise female offenders as victims, particularly if they had a long history with the police:
“The more times the victim who is perhaps being coerced into crime has presented as a suspect and dealt with for those criminal matters before her victim status is identified, the harder it will be for that perception to be switched.”
Indeed, a woman’s offending history was seen as a barrier to the pursuit of charges against a perpetrator if a victim did disclose controlling and coercive behaviour as the reason for their offence. This is likely be one factor contributing to the lack of trust in police that was felt to be a barrier to victims disclosing they had been forced to offend by an abuser. Echoing research by the Centre for Women’s Justice, one reason offered for this was that police may have previously failed the victim by either not taking action against the perpetrator, or wrongly arresting them after a cross-allegation was made.
Finally, the research revealed that there is no decision-making framework to guide officers where female offenders disclose contextual abuse. When asked what the next steps would be if a female offender disclosed that they had committed a crime because of coercive control, the answers varied considerably.
One officer stated that “(Policing) haven’t developed the process yet which says, in these circumstances, the option to A, B and C is available. So, you need to take the learning back to CPS and say:
“Look, in this scenario, can we have some guidance and a flowchart that says this is an option, and that we can make that decision?”
Although officers were sceptical as to whether a statutory defence would work in practice because Controlling or Coercive Behaviour is already so difficult to prove, officers agreed that it would increase understanding and provide investigators with another ‘tool in the box’ to identify contextual abuse.
*97% of defendants prosecuted for coercive and controlling behaviour in the year ending December 2018 were male. (ONS, 2019).
A copy of this research is held in the Library at Portsmouth University